While I was growing up, my younger brothers (I'm the oldest of four boys—I know: my poor mother) often chided me for being so much like my father. I suppose it was inevitable that I would be: first born children tend to be rule followers (if you believe in the significance of birth order) and I fit the stereotype.

Some boys use their fathers to push against as they struggle to establish their own independent identities. I used mine as a role model.

My decision to do this was largely, though not entirely, unconscious. I wanted his approval and love, of course, and I was always clever—so emulating him seemed a good way to get it. But as I was clever, I also discerned the parts of him that were worth emulating: his decency, his commitment to honesty, his intellectual curiosity, his disdain for the influence of peer pressure (I presume shown to me for the express purpose of preparing me to resist it), and his zealous devotion to our family.

As far back as I can remember, he enforced the idea that I should think for myself and never do something just because others were doing it (never drawing attention to the irony of his own attempt to shape my thinking with this advice). He's been without a doubt one of my greatest good influences (the other being my mother). His influence, generated by what he said and did (and by the congruence between them), had as much an effect—if not more—over my development as my peers. Much of what's good in me came from him, and I count myself lucky to have had him. As I've mulled over the beneficial effects of his influence over me, I've found myself wondering about the power of influence in general.

WHY IS INFLUENCE IMPORTANT?

Control over our lives is something we all want. But in a universe in which everything is mutually interdependent, none of us has absolute control over anything except ourselves (and even over ourselves our control is indirect and partial only). Instead, what we all have in abundance is influence, the power of which seems to function linearly: the closer personally and physically others are to us, the greater our influence over them, and vice versa. Even more interestingly, unlike our attempts to control, our attempts to influence don't require our conscious intent. Which is why our ability to influence others is so much more important that our ability to control them: we're always exerting influence simply by being who we are, saying what we say, and doing what we do. The only real choice we have in the matter is whether or not the influence we exert is good or bad.

BECOMING A GOOD INFLUENCE

You never know who's watching you. And someone always is, whether your child, your sibling, your spouse, your friend, or a stranger in another car on the road. Emotions and inner life states are transmitted like viruses along the vectors of our words and actions, even from the quietest and smallest. Nothing can encourage us like someone else's good example. They're frankly few and far between—but they're there if you look for them. Want to create value with your life? Become a good influence.

Stop and think. What better service can you provide someone else besides being a good example to them? Not with conscious intention, which always seems contrived and has little power to encourage, but by simply (oh, ironic word) becoming the examples you yourself want to see. As I wrote in a previous post, How To Communicate With Your Life, when you've actually become something, others see it in almost everything you do.

AVOIDING BAD INFLUENCES

Life is a constant battle to maintain a high life-condition. In medical school, we were taught that one way to recognize a patient is depressed is by examining our own mood once we've finished interacting with them. If we feel depressed ourselves, a good chance exists they are, too. A principle of Nichiren Buddhism—the oneness of life and its environment—addresses this phenomenon: our own inner life state finds itself mirrored in and mirrored by our environment. In other words, everyone's life-condition tends towards the average of those around them. If I'm up and you're down, we'll each tend to pull one another toward our own inner states, usually both moving toward the mean between them. Some people have exceptionally resilient life-conditions that are like rigid magnets, pulling others up (or down) powerfully without tending to move much themselves under the influence of the life-conditions of others. While we may all aspire to possess that strength (to the positive, obviously), most of us haven't achieved it.

Others are still able to pull out of most of us varying positive or negative characteristics. Our children may pull out wise protectors or fed-up disciplinarians. Our co-workers may pull out inspiring leaders or complaining gossips. Some people are simply toxic, complaining constantly, gossiping mercilessly, even purposely sabotaging others. On days we're strong enough not only to avoid being pulled into similar patterns of behavior but also help them avoid such negative behaviors as well, we can serve as good influences over them. On days we're weaker ourselves and therefore more susceptible to negative influences, we should avoid such people as best we can. It's quite easy when we're feeling low to spiral even lower under the influence of someone else's negativity.

CONVERTING BAD INFLUENCES INTO GOOD ONES

This is what we all really want to do, both for ourselves and others. The more good influences with which we surround ourselves, the happier we'll be; the more people we "convert" into good influences (by our own good influence), the more value we will have created, which will also add to our happiness. Yet converting someone from a bad influence into a good one is among the hardest of tasks: changing someone's basic approach to life from negative to positive isn't likely something any one person has the power to do. At least, not consistently. The only way, it seems to me, to turn a bad influence into a good one is by consistently being a powerful good influence yourself. Which, of course, requires you to challenge your own negativity and constantly win over it, and that is the hardest of tasks.

And also the most worthwhile. I can think of no better epitaph than "He helped others to better themselves." If that's what they end up saying about me, I will have been able to consider my life a success. It's certainly what I'm going to say about my dad.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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